Monday, January 10, 2011

Puzzle the finder

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, tracking, search and rescue

When the shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in early 2003, it resulted in one the largest search-and-rescue operations ever conducted. This was not because there was any hope of rescuing any of the crew, but because SAR teams were the best equipped to locate the debris which was scattered over an area of 700,000 acres (280,000 ha; ~1,100 sq. mi.; 2,800 sq. km.) After more than three months of work by 30,000 searchers and a great many search dogs, about 40% of the debris was gathered.

Susannah Charleson was there. As she writes in Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership With a Search-and-Rescue Dog, her part in the Columbia search effort was small, and frustrating. Not yet having a dog of her own, the author was an aide to a search team, following a handler and his dog as they searched, keeping data, and calling in finds to the coordinators. Dogs who are trained to locate missing humans or their substantial remains were often able to only locate an area with plenty of human scent, but no visible remains. Finding a walnut-size piece of bone or a hand-size scrap of torn plastic could be the culmination of a day's work. When a 100-ton artifact breaks up 39 miles overhead at Mach 18, few items bigger than shreds make it to ground level.

Scent of the Missing is not all about frustration, however. The book chronicles the author's journey to become first a searcher, then an aide following a handler-plus-dog team, then a dog handler herself. Interspersed with stories of searches that had results covering the spectrum of success (and not) are chapters recounting the raising of her dog Puzzle and the training regimens they both endured.

There is something exceptionally lovable about Golden retrievers like Puzzle. She was brought into the author's animal-filled home: When your other dogs are mostly Pomeranians (that is, cat-size), the addition of a big pup can be overwhelming. Somehow, though Puzzle worked to establish dominance over the younger Poms, she was sweetly solicitous of the more ancient dog that, at 21, was otherwise lost in his own deaf and blind world. Retaining only his sense of smell, the old dog could navigate the yard and house by scents alone. Puzzle frequently seemed to be guarding the old fellow.

A dog has about forty times as many scent cells as a human, and they must have even greater sensitivity per each, for a dog can smell not just forty, but thousands of times more acutely than a human. Thus the mechanics of air following.

We all have this image of a bloodhound, nose to the ground, snuffling along as it tracks a fugitive. Most often, however, the hound and any other dog can follow our air trail. All of us shed skin cells continually, a gram or more daily, or billions of particles. Each particle carries molecules of oil and sweat that slowly evaporate over the next few days or weeks (In quiet air, these settle to the ground, leaving the ground track we think of). Sleep somewhere once, and a dog visiting a month later will know you were there. A dog trying to find you will circle downwind until she picks up your scent, then zigzag to find the limits of a scent cone in the air. This can be followed upwind until the dog can sight you. Search dogs are trained to alert their handlers by posture and voice when a person is found.

While Ms Charleson was training Puzzle, she was also training herself to recognize the habits and postures and alerts of a searching dog. All of us who have pets know that they learn quite a lot of our language. A search dog handler has to learn a lot of Dog. It takes two-way communication to make a good search team. It also takes plenty of practice, and finally three rigorous certification tests, in which the team must locate three or four hidden "victims" in a designated search area under a time limit.

Time is important, as pointed up by the last story in the book, the only chapter that details one of Puzzle's searches. An impaired elderly man named Jimmy has run away from his care facility, and not for the first time. This time, however, he is wearing only pajama bottoms, and the temperature is dropping to near-freezing as evening advances. The crux of the story is that Puzzle and two other dogs all agree that Jimmy's scent is strongest on the eastern boundary of their designated search area. Because it is a city limit, the police cannot send the searchers beyond that boundary. But they do alert the police in the next town, who find Jimmy in a fast food place, where kind strangers have given him a blanket and bought him a milk shake. While it would be nice to have Puzzle lead her handler right to Jimmy, in a great many cases it is a collaboration between search services, working together, that complete a search.

This warm-hearted book almost gets us inside the mind of the young dog, and it does get us inside the author's mind, as she learns her craft—all on a volunteer basis, mind you—and goes through the worries and elations of growing with her dog into a certified team.

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